Good news from Chicago: Thomas Frank's journalThe Baffler has returned after a long absence. The latest issue features strong essays on online poker, the ongoing destruction of our legal system, and a Thomas Frank column on centrism that, among other valuable services, demolishes the "doctrine of symmetry" that pretends to balance every far-right offense with an injudicious Michael Moore aphorism.
I have a much more ambivalent reaction to "Free (Market) Verse," in which Steve Evans chronicles the efforts of a group of businessmen and bureaucrats to "deny, disrupt, and discredit existing networks of poetry production" and replace them with vapid, affirmational kitsch on the assumption that kitsch speaks more directly to some hypothetical average reader. (You can read an online version of Evans' essay here.) I want to like any essay that dismantles the reactionary populism of energy executives, pharmaceutical companies, and Bush appointees, and I really want to like any essay that connects these ideologies to cultural production. But on the other hand, I can't get behind an essay that defends MFA programs as bastions of creativity, artistic diversity, and democratization. When Evans scornfully cites an executive's criticisms of the "hothouse" environment of contemporary poetry, I find myself agreeing with the wrong side.
The essay has a tendency to invert and recycle the very logic it rails against. Evans says poetry magazines "irrevocably decentralized the world of poetry by taking the power of publication out of the hands of a few authoritative editors and giving it directly to poets themselves"--this is the language of market radicalism that The Baffler has been deflating for nearly two decades, the language of decentralization that drives the privatizers and deregulators Evans despises. Maybe that language is more appropriate here--maybe art should be decentralized and utilities shouldn't--but Evans doesn't make that distinction. Instead he serves up market-pop platitudes to the most skeptical audience possible.
Evans also commits a curious and persistent ad hominem where he criticizes Poetry Foundation president John Barr, NEA Chair Dana Gioia, and former U. S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser by listing their credentials as an investment banker, marketing writer, and insurance underwriter, respectively. These past occupations are meant to suggest that the unholy trinity is bringing the market logic and debased aesthetic of the corporation to the world of poetry--which, it appears, they are--but they also insinuate that the trio is just too square for a niche that is by divine right the province of pierced baristas, trust fund babies, and brittle neurasthenic suicides. If every white-collar professional were disqualified from poetry we wouldn't have Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, or William Carlos Williams. Worst of all, Evans doesn't need to flagellate the trinity with their resumés: Kooser's experience as an underwriter could not possibly be as relevant as his plodding sense of what constitutes good poetry.
For that, we need no further evidence than Barr and Kooser's American Life in Poetry project, which plants short poems in rural newspapers across the country as a means of reaching out to the common man, the flyover poetry reader who's been unjustly neglected by the bicoastal poetry elite. Evans eviscerates the project simply by summarizing the first sixteen poems, laying their mundanity bare for all to see. But couldn't he be cheating? Doesn't any poem sound banal if you reduce it to a one-sentence summary? ("A speaker leaves a note to his wife apologizing for eating the plums in the refrigerator.") I decided to go to the American Life in Poetry website and see for myself.
Oh, how I wish I had listened to Steve Evans. Here's one of the poems Evans summarily dismisses, "Turning Forty":
At times it's like there is a small planet
inside me. And on this planet,
there are many small wars, yet none
big enough to make a real difference.
The major countries—mind and heart—have
called a truce for now. If this planet had a ruler,
no one remembers him well.
The hollow but relentless simile, the child's diction (small, many small, big enough, real difference--suddenly I long for Sophie Crumb)--this poem should not be read anywhere outside of a high school notebook, the margins decorated with rockets and tanks. Evans' summary ("A tamed speaker recalls his youthful virility on the eve of his fortieth birthday") is better written, though the point it distills is still yawn-inducing--everyone already knows it, even if they haven't themselves turned forty, and the war on Planet Me won't show them anything new.
But Ted Kooser, like most practitioners of market populism, doesn't seem to think that highly of the salt of the earth readers he celebrates. Every one of the American Life in Poetry columns is preceded by a brief introduction that reduces the poem to the most basic and trite message. Kooser's glosses are so artless they make Evans' summaries look like Fabergé eggs. ("The speaker feels a sense of peace at forty, but recalls a more powerful, more confident time in his life.") Even a halfway interesting piece like this one--I confess I only clicked on the link to make fun of it, and was surprised--gets saddled with a commentary that explains, and obviates, the entire poem:
Of taking long walks it has been said that a person can walk off anything. Here David Mason hikes a mountain in his home state, Colorado, and steps away from an undisclosed personal loss into another state, one of healing.
This is the final result of Kooser's, Gioia's, and Barr's self-righteous didacticism: poetry so obvious you don't actually need to read it. When a rare poem does slip through the screening process and threatens to invite further contemplation, culture warriors like Kooser will be there to make sure the good, simple readers of the plains don't have to think too hard.
But Kooser is most revealing when he eschews the obvious for the trivial. Here's his introduction to the latest column:
Those of us who have hunted morel mushrooms in the early spring have hunted indeed!
Indeed! The poem in question is a tepid William Carlos Williams imitation (Williams seems to be a favorite model for Kooser's poets; maybe we should purge the good doctor from the canon after all) that mistakes a short line for a style and builds up to this surprising realization:
By the slumping log,
by the dappled aspen,
they grow alone.
A dumb eloquence
seems their trade.
Like hooded monks
in a sacred wood
Tomorrow we are gone.
The poem lays bare the fundamental mistake made by both Evans and Kooser, Barr, and Gioia: the folly of opposing the poetry establishment of corporate donors and the Bush administration with the poetry establishment of the universities and literary magazines.
It's a petty epiphany poem, no different from the ones MFA programs are churning out by the thesis. A little less au courant, maybe a little less technically proficient--maybe--but no less invested in the belief that art should be made from mundane observations of quotidian moments. The American Life in Poetry project promotes that belief with a monotony that would humble even the most formulaic workshop. And while the academic and literary poets produce more sophisticated work, their careers are supported by the ranks of graduate students enrolling in workshops that encourage them to craft the kind of muted observations that would delight our mushroom-loving former poet laureate.
Evans offers an astute, scathing analysis of the reactionary ideology and patronizing aesthetic of the "MBA poets," and, to be honest, they probably land some solid hits on the MFA programs. But when it comes to evaluating their own side they're both mouthing the same pseudo-radical rhetoric, circling each other warily, unaware that they're shackled together at the ankles.